The History of Herbie as a super popular VW bug in the movies
There is one vehicle that you can spot driving down the road from blocks away – the Volkswagen Beetle. Whether you play the "punch buggy" game and blast the person sitting next to you or just admire it (we know you play the game), they are a design that no other car can compete with.
The Volkswagen Bug is also known as the "Beetle," "Super Beetle," "Superbug," or "Käifer." The car began manufacturing in 1938 and continued into 2003 for Type 1. Along the way, the Volkswagen New Beetle was manufactured from 1997 to 2010, and Volkswagen Beetle (A5) from 2011 to 2019. No matter the year it was manufactured, no VW Beetle is as famous as a particular 1963 Love Bug model.
Herbie: The 1963 Volkswagen Beetle
In 1968, Walt Disney Productions brought a fictional sentient anthropomorphic and almost autonomous pearl-white 1963 Volkswagen racing Beetle named Herbie to life. Herbie wore the number 53 in the "gumball" circle pattern and featured the red, white, and blue stripes down the middle. The car's appearance stayed consistent through the first four films and the 1982 television series, with only minor subtle changes. In 1997, Herbie was given a complete overhaul.
To create the autonomous effect of Herbie driving himself, Disney used an intricate system of sprockets and pulleys connected to a second steering column under the front seat for a rear seat driver. There were also a second set of pedal assemblies, clutch cables, and a shifter extension.
1968: The Love Bug
The movie is based on the 1961 Gordon Buford book, Car, Boy, Girl. The first movie in the Herbie series, titled "The Love Bug," follows the adventures of Herbie, his driver, Jim Douglas, and Jim's love interest, Carole Bennett.
Additional characters in the movie include Jim's friend, Tennessee Steinmetz, who creates art from used car parts. The villainous antagonist of the movie is Peter Thorndyke, the owner of the auto showroom and an SCCA national champion. After Jim visits the showroom and defends the then nameless Herbie to Peter, the car magically ends up on his doorstep.
Carole, Peter's sales assistant/mechanic, convinces him to drop charges of grand theft auto for the car and allow Jim to make payments for the Beetle. Shortly after this, Jim sees that Herbie has a mind of his own and thinks Peter has conned him. Tennessee brings up the possibility that Herbie is a sentient inanimate object that can develop feelings.
Jim then comes home with a new Lamborghini 400GT and intends on selling Herbie back to Peter when the Beetle goes on his own rampage. Right before Herbie decides he is going to drive off the bridge, Jim stops him. He shows the Beetle that he does have feelings for him and saves them both.
The movie's end shows that the wager made with Chinese businessman Wu comes to life as Herbie wins the El Dorado and Wu takes over Peter's showroom. As happy endings go, Jim and Carole are newlyweds who go away on their honeymoon chauffeured by Herbie.
1974: Herbie Rides Again
The next movie in the Herbie series came in 1974 and is called "Herbie Rides Again." It follows Herbie, "Grandma" Steinmetz (aunt of Tennessee Steinmetz), her displaced neighbor Nicole Harris, and their other sentient machines – a 20th Century orchestrion and a retired cable car known as Old No. 22.
The antagonist in this movie, notorious real estate magnate and demolition baron Alonzo Hawk is set to build his newest 130-story Hawk Plaza. The only obstacle in his way is the firehouse that Grandma Steinmetz lives in. Alonzo's attempts to evict the woman and her inhabitants leave him empty-handed until his lawyer nephew, Willoughby Whitfield, visits him.
Grandma Steinmetz takes a liking to the lawyer due to his youthful looks and good manners, the opposite of Alonzo and his henchmen. After learning the events that Alonzo has put them through from Nicole, Willoughby tells her his connection to the businessman. Enraged, Nicole hits him with a broiled lobster, landing him in Fisherman's Wharf. He then goes back to his uncle and tells him he will no longer do his dirty work.
By the end of the film, Alonzo tries to pull one over on Grandma Steinmetz and Nicole, and Willoughby by making them think that he has come to a truce. While all of them are out, he attempts to bring down the firehouse. Herbie collects Nicole and Willoughby and rounds up several other VW Beetles to come after Alonzo and his army of earthmovers, taking advantage of an irrational fear of Herbie that Alonzo has.
Nicole and Willoughby get married and ride Herbie through an arch formed by all of his new Volkswagen Beetle friends.
1977: Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo
The 1977 movie Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo brings back original driver Jim Douglas and his new riding mechanic Wheely Applegate as they participate in the fictitious Trans-France Race, a road race that spans from Paris, France to Monte Carlo, Monaco.
The race features three major opponents that Jim, Wheely, and Herbie must overcome – Bruno Von Stickle, Claude Gilbert, and Diane Darcy. Diane is the only female driver in the Trans-France and initially hates Jim for what turns out to be Herbie's knee-jerk reaction to her car Giselle, a Lancia Scorpion. Her attitude changes when Jim and Herbie save her and Giselle from drowning after crashing into the lake toward the end of the race.
Two thieves manage to steal a French diamond and hide it in Herbie's fuel tank to avoid capture from police. Herbie thwarts every effort made by the thieves to get the diamond back. It is soon uncovered that the Inspector is "Double X," the code name given to the thieves and mastermind of the entire museum robbery. In the end, it is a true love story where Jim and Diane begin to fall in love, Wheely falls in love with the Monte Carlo trophy girl, and Herbie with Giselle.
1980: Herbie Goes Bananas
Pete Stancheck inherits Herbie from his uncle Jim Douglas. He and his friend Davy "D.J." Johns travel to Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, to retrieve Herbie. They meet Paco, who gives them directions but pickpockets in the process. Paco then pickpockets one of three villains who has plans to steal gold from the forgotten Inca ruins but is soon chased when it is realized that the film showing the location of the gold is stolen from them. Paco stows away in Herbie's luggage compartment and is then loaded onto the Sun Princess bound for Rio de Janeiro.
The plan is for Herbie to be entered into the Brazil Grand Prêmio, but on the way, they meet an anthropology student named Melissa and her aunt Louise. Louise is trying to find a husband for her niece. After Herbie wreaks havoc onboard, Pete pretends to court Melissa in hopes that Louise will sponsor the race.
The gold thieves find Paco and threaten to cut up Herbie if he doesn't give them the stolen film, which was accidentally put in Pete's wallet by mistake. They all end up at a bullfight, where Herbie takes out the bull and is later picked up by Pete, DJ, and Louise, who explains what has happened.
They find the others in a small town where the bus that Melissa commandeered finally broke down, and as the rainstorm hits, the thieves retrieve a large gold disc from the ruins. Herbie then "eats" the disc, locates Paco, and all of them travel to the next big city camouflaged by bananas. While trying to take the disc to the university, the thieves steal and put it in their plane when Herbie bites the plane's tail off, allowing the police to catch them. Herbie will eventually enter the race with Paco as the driver, with the closing scene showing all of them toasting, hoping that Herbie and Paco win the race.
1982: Herbie, The Love Bug (TV Series)
The five-episode television series aired on CBS from March 17 to April 14, 1982. The mid-season replacement series is the last Herbie production until the TV movie in 1997. The theme song, "Herbie, My Best Friend," is performed by Dean Jones, who reprises his role as Jim Douglas.
Jim is now a retired race car driver and an instructor at the Famous Driving School with his partner Bo Phillips. Jim and Herbie manage to stop a robbery in progress and rescue a young divorcée named Susan MacLane. Susan works at the bank and is a mother of three – Julie, Robbie, and Matthew. Jim and Susan end up falling in love, to which her ex-boyfriend Randy Bigelow attempts to break up. They get married in the episode entitled "Herbie the Best Man," which aired on April 7, 1982.
1997: The Love Bug (Made-for-Television Movie)
The story's narrator is Jim Douglas (also the original owner of Herbie in previous movies). He tells of Herbie the Volkswagen Beetle owned by an egotistical racer named Simon Moore III, who throws Herbie in a junkyard when they lose a race after calling Herbie junk. A small-town mechanic, Hank Cooper, enters a junk car race and ends up with "the last choice," forcing him to take a broken down Herbie.
With the help of his friend Roddy, Hank is able to get Herbie running just before being towed off of the track. Showing his gratitude for Hank's kindness, Herbie manages to win the race. To the disbelief of the judges, they demand to know how such a small car could pull off winning such a race without tricks or hijinx. One of the judges, Hank's former girlfriend Alex, demands to see more, and he takes her for a ride. During this ride, their romance is rekindled – much like the first movie where Herbie drives Jim and Carole.
Simon, wanting to know why Herbie brought him loss and Hank's victory, seeks out the original builder of the car – Dr. Gustav Stumpfel. Dr. Stumpfel built Herbie shortly after World War II. Simon asks him to build another model, only pure black, naming him Horace the Hate Bug.
Simon orders Horace to find Herbie and destroy him, which Horace accomplishes, leaving Herbie in a pile of crushed metal. As Hank catches up, he realizes it is too late to save Herbie, and the group gives him a funeral. At the funeral, Jim shows up with Dr. Stumpfel, who examines the remains and determines that Herbie can be rebuilt. After being rebuilt, it is Jim who gets the honor of starting him for the first time.
Simon then challenges Hank to a race between Horace and Herbie. Herbie ends up being victorious despite the sabotaging on Simon and Horace's part, including slicing Herbie in half with Horace's laser. After attempting to push Herbie over the cliff, Horace falls to his own death. Simon and his henchman are both arrested. Hank and Alex drive off at the end of the movie, in love, with Herbie.
2005: Herbie: Fully Loaded
The final installment of the Herbie series follows Maggie Peyton, the youngest member of the Peyton Racing team, as her father takes her to the junkyard to buy her a car as her college graduation present. Her father then takes Maggie to her mechanic friend Kevin who agrees to take Herbie to a car show to buy parts for him. Herbie tricks Maggie into disguising herself in a racing suit and helmet, challenging NASCAR champion Trip Murphy – a race which Herbie wins by a hair.
Kevin suggests that Maggie should race again, even against her father's negative feelings on the subject after a street racing accident years prior. Maggie and Herbie easily beat all the other cars in the local racing competition, but Herbie becomes jealous when Trip wants to race for pink slips and Maggie's growing desire for Trip's stock car. Herbie intentionally loses the race, being towed away while Maggie's father scolds her for racing without permission.
Encouraged by her friend Charisma, Maggie decides to try and guy Herbie back from Trip, who has already entered him into a demolition derby. Running onto the field, Maggie begs Herbie to take her back, and the two win the derby, narrowly escaping destruction.
At the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, Trip ominously warns Maggie and Herbie that the race will be dangerous. Herbie starts the race slowly but soon catches up and begins passing other cars before making his first pitstop. Herbie is soon boxed in, but Maggie escapes the trap by driving directly over the car in front of her, damaging Herbie's oil system. Using a part from a New Beetle that Herbie has been eyeing the entire film, Kevin gets Herbie back on track.
In the end, Trip is taken out by ambulance, Kevin kisses Maggie, and the New Beetle that Herbie is eyeing is found to have a mind of its own as well.
How Big of an Impact a VW Bug Can Make
In terms of cars, you likely wouldn't consider a Volkswagen Beetle to be one that would make a big splash on the racing circuit. This may be why Disney chose the car, because of its likable exterior and unlikely racing capability.
Even though the least grossing film was Herbie Goes Bananas, the momentum picked back up when the final installment came out in 2005, grossing more than the original movie did at the box office. While there have been no hints as to another movie or series, Herbie has made appearances throughout the years – on television and in the Disney theme parks.
The next time you see one of these VW Bugs on the road, you might admire it for the craftsmanship and potential racing advantage – after all, how do you know if it isn't Herbie in disguise?